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I 've left Northport behind and taken the fork in the road that leads to the northernmost tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. It winds past gnarled, bare cherry trees, lonely barns and the dark, autumnal forest. Just before I reach the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, a buck runs across the road, burly and ominous. I cross the desolate grounds and knock on the lighthouse door.
Stef Staley, the no-nonsense executive director of the lighthouse museum, is waiting inside. In the fall when it’s quiet Staley hears the most from the ghost that haunts the light. When she’s here alone and everything is all buttoned up she hears someone with hard-soled shoes crossing the hardwood floors. “In the bathroom, I hear voices, in the hall going toward the tower. Then someone walking up the tower. I hear it, I walk out, and there’s not a soul anywhere,” she says. She stares into my eyes.
She’s not the only one who senses the ghost. She tells of a docent volunteer here in April who, anxious and almost embarrassed, reported to her that the night before he felt someone brush past him and then felt a warm flow of air three times in a row. Another volunteer at the admissions desk for the museum sensed a presence, then glanced over to the threshold of the original exterior door and saw a man with his face down, kicking off his boots.
Recently an ordinary looking woman came into the lighthouse and asked if it was haunted. Staley told her that it may be, and the woman, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant, told her with certainty that it is Captain Peter Nelson. “It’s him,” she said. “He just spoke to me.”
My great-great-great-grandfather, Danish ship captain Peter Nelson, was the lighthouse keeper at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse from October 12, 1874 to July 11, 1890. He died two years later.
I’m going to sleep here tonight, alone in the lighthouse, to see if he’ll speak to me.
Captain Peter Nelson’s ghost talked to me before—though not in words. When I was in my young teens, it was my job to dust the three framed rubbings of his gravestone that my grandparents have hanging in their farmhouse near Northport. My parents, newlyweds, came up to Northport the summer of 1971 and took a bar of hard black wax and some long scrolls of paper to the cemetery where Captain Nelson is buried to preserve what was left of his inscription. The tombstone rubbings hung near the black leather chaise lounge in frames on the barnwood wall. It was always dark in the room, even when the shades were up. I sensed his presence, and sometimes I felt as though he could see me while I dusted. He seemed larger than life, this bearded patriarch of my family, who I’d heard had sailed the seven seas, saw San Francisco when it was a mere trading port and wore a gold hoop earring.
Before we were married, my husband and I rode our bikes to the cemetery in Northport. We parked at the edge and were careful to walk only down the rows, rather than crisscross over the remains of the dead. We saw the anchor on the north side of his stone, plain as rain. Two baby graves are next to him—his grandchildren he never knew, one who died, supposedly, from eating too many pickles. You can just barely read the inscription on the gray stone:
Capt. Peter Nelson
Born in Copenhagen Denmark
Died February 1892
Aged 81 years 7 days, home with God
Hide me, O my Savior, hide
Til The storm of life is past
Safe into the Harbor guide
O, receive my soul at last.
Walking over the stony path from the lighthouse to the beach I cross the browned quack grass and pass curled up Queen Anne’s lace blossoms bending over to the force of the wind. Off shore the whitecaps are waist high, and they smack the rocky shore. November, with its bare branches and sterling air, makes me feel vulnerable and acutely alive. It’s a biblical sky—the clouds are moving in fast-forward, and I’ve never seen a sunset like this. Peach, orange and cranberry-red tinge the bottoms of the clouds.